Vahalla urges unity in borough address

Followed by vote to end liaison positions; falls along party lines

BY ENID WEISS Correspondent

During his opening State of the Borough speech at the Metuchen Borough Council’s Jan. 5 meeting, Mayor Thomas Vahalla called on the council— now evenly split with three Republicans and three Democrats — to work together in light of what portends to be a difficult year financially.

“We must put aside personalities, egos, and especially political agenda, to do what is best for Metuchen’s residents,” Vahalla said. “We need not accept past practice or the status quo. All items and areas will be carefully examined throughout the budget process.”

They unanimously supported retaining Councilman Richard Dyas as council president and Councilman Richard Weber as vice president. Both men are Democrats.

Later in the meeting, Vahalla was called on to cast a tie-breaking vote as the council decided whether to eliminate council liaison roles with various borough departments.

The vote came down across party lines, with Democrats agreeing to eliminate 14 subcommittee roles played by various councilmen and Republicans voting against the move. Councilmen on both sides denied that the vote reflected a partisan split. It does, however, reflect fundamental differences in perceptions in municipal government.

Liaisons exist as a way for the council to connect with individual borough employees and smaller commissions, something Vahalla said was unnecessary with a borough administrator assuming a role essentially incorporating all such positions into his job. For example, there had been a council member designated as the representative liaison to the borough’s Department of Public Works.

There still remain several council liaisons with the borough’s larger commissions and boards, such as the environmental commission, shade tree commission, pool commission, parking authority and recreation commission.

“Their liaisons provide them with a voice on the council and a method of reporting to the public at large,” said Councilman Christopher Morrison, who argued for retaining the spots. “We should not simply abandon these roles, nor should we merely abdicate them to the executive body. … The purpose of the role is to provide these groups or persons with a contact person on the council.”

Metuchen’s mayoral role is not an executive branch of municipal government, according to council attorney David Frizell. He said there is only one branch of municipal government — the legislative.

Doing away with the positions was seen by the measure’s supporters as a way to streamline government.

“Doing away with these positions is a smart idea,” said Councilman Pete Cammarano. “These people do have the ability to report [to the council] through the chain of command.”

But Manley said he supported retaining the liaison positions, viewing it “as simple checks and balances.”

Cammarano also expressed his agreement with Vahalla’s decision to retain his liaison positions with the borough’s fire department and Senior Citizens’ Commission. Republican council members had challenged it, since Vahalla isn’t actually part of the council.

“The way it breaks down, it appears it’s partisan, but it’s not,” said Councilman William Waldron about both the liaison role eliminations and the mayor’s actions to remain the liaison with the fire department and Senior Citizens’ Commission. “I think we are in danger of embracing an improper past practice, and I will be voting ‘no’ on this resolution.”

Weber expressed support for the move to eliminate positions and the mayor’s liaison roles.

“I’m confident in the information our attorney has presented,” Weber said.

Dyas added, “I don’t believe an employee should have a direct liaison to the council.”

In an e-mail interview after the meeting, Manley said it was important to him that people realize that “this is not a partisan issue and we are not [his emphasis] doing this for partisan reasons or to prevent the mayor from governing in any way, shape or form.”

Manley pointed to state law 40A covering municipalities and chapter 60 discussing mayoral and council roles, noting that the two positions have different, delineated roles. He stated, “The state statutes that establish the borough form of government clearly indicate that the mayor is the head of the municipal government. … You’ll find case law that clearly states that the mayor is not to be counted as a member of the legislative body unless only for the purposes of breaking a tie.”

The debate took place before a packed house that included family members and friends of the re-elected Cammarano and newly elected Manley, who were on hand to witness the official swearing-in ceremony. Assemblymen Peter J. Barnes III and Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-18th District) and State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18th District) were also present.

Contact Enid Weiss at metuchen@gmnews.com.